More than 30,000 ACT health members left in limbo when their provider entered administration may have been given a reprieve after administrators found new operators courtesy of a court granting them more time.
The nation's peak medical body welcomed the news about the National Health Co-op (NHC), but it said the case should prompt the ACT government, who along with the federal government funded NHC, to help find more innovative ways to address underlying issues impacting the territory's GPs and bulk billing situation.
The not-for-profit and member-owned NHC, which opened its doors in 2010 and is now estimated to have 14 per cent of all bulk-billed GP appointments, entered voluntary administration in June.
In a letter to workers on Tuesday, administrator Michael Slaven said NHC had entered into contracts for clinics at Coombs, Evatt, Higgins, Kippax and Macquarie to be restructured into independently owned and operated GP clinics under different names.
The new operators are Palm Healthcare, Evatt Medical Centre, Belconnen Way Medical Centre, and Akod Medical Services.
Subject to contracts completing, this change will start on October 2.
"We will provide further information to all employees and contractors about handover to the new owners and the employee entitlements process as we get closer to the settlement date," Mr Slaven said.
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Speaking to The Canberra Times on Wednesday, he said continuity of services was paramount.
"We'll be finalising trading operations of the NHC on October 1 - that'll be the date for settlement of the contracts for sale," he said.
As for the ANU, he said they would continue operating until the university "is in a position to take on the running of the clinic" and that they would soon give an update about the Chisolm clinic.
Asked about whether the independent operators would use the same healthcare model as NHC, Mr Slaven said the decision was up to each operator.
The NHC also took on COVID vaccine bookings across its sites and Mr Slaven said there continued to be no impact on those bookings for NHC members and non-members.
The restructure comes after the ACT Supreme Court recently granted the administrators more time until October, which is when NCH's funds are estimated to last until, before it was required to hold a second creditors meeting.
Mr Slaven and joint administrator Aaron Torline argued via their lawyers that it would help them explore a restructure or sale to limit impact on COVID vaccine bookings, on employees and on accruing liabilities.
"Closure of the NHC clinics would also result in the general practitioners having to transfer to other practices," the administrators said.
"This would be complicated by the fact that 11 of the practitioners were subject to visa restrictions...and the visas they presently held were sponsored or proposed by NHC."
The administrators said that if there were no extension, the only recommendation they could make make was to wind up NHC.
In her decision to grant the extension, Acting Justice Verity McWilliams said she considered the significant health consequences for NHC members and the ACT public more broadly.
Acting Justice Williams also ordered that any employee who resigned during the administration would be paid entitlements in the ordinary way.
Australian Medical Association ACT president Dr Walter Abhayaratna said while the restructure was good news, the case should prompt the ACT Government to work with the AMA and other health authorities to find better healthcare financing and payment models.
"It is a reminder that the GPs in the territory will find it hard to survive without charging some gap in payment, so this is an opportunity for the government to work with GPs," he said.
Dr Abhayaratna said the territory's key issue was that while the population was urbanised, the number of GPs per 100,000 people "are more like rural and remote areas of the country".
"We have to make sure that whatever we do in terms of health policy, we address this issue in the long term," he said,
"What the government has done in the past is come up with quick fixes.
"GPs who were not in the co-op were very unhappy about the funding because they should've been asked about how they could've been supported to address payment gaps."
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith previously called on the federal government to reconsider cutting off Canberra from bulk-billing incentives while Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price said broader reform of the system was needed.
At a media conference on Wednesday, Ms Stephen-Smith said the restructure was a "really good outcome compared to what we were potentially seeing of all of those National Health Co-op clinics potentially shutting down".
"To see new general practice clinics being established and maintained and a continuity of service with patient files being transferred to these new clinics is a really positive outcome," she said.
"But I would be very surprised if any of them were 100 per cent bulk billing because we know how challenging a 100 per cent bulk billed environment is, particularly in the ACT ... where the bulk billing incentive has been removed."
The health minister said they continued to discuss with the Commonwealth about the sustainability of GPs and the availability of bulk billing.
The new operators have been contacted for comment about their plans.
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